White Saviours – Do They Really Matter?

by Anne-Meike Fechter

 Not least since the novelist Teju Cole launched a trenchant critique of what he called the ‘white saviour industrial complex’ and the periodically reigniting debates of the legitimacy of white celebrities fronting charity appeals in Africa (david-lammy-comic-relief-stacey-dooley-white-saviour) have critiques of ‘white saviourism’ fuelled debates on race, charity, and ‘poverty porn’. So firmly established are the critiques of ‘white saviourism’ that they have sparked their own parody genres, such as the blackly funny role reversals of ‘Radi-Aid’ and those skewering the egos of white, female voluntourists through the ‘Barbie Saviour’ pastiches. Whether acerbic, angry or coolly analytical, they position white agency, even if critically, at the centre.


This is problematic – not because the ‘industrial complex’ doesn’t deserve to be called out. But even the most severe critiques repeat the centrality of ‘white saviour’ figures, rather than dislodging them altogether. Incidentally, some of these parodies, such as ‘Barbie Saviour’, are also typically gendered and arguably misogynist, an indication of how deeply not just racial, but also gendered tropes runs through these debates. The damage caused by ‘white saviour’ narratives, as well as by the debates they sustain, is that they erase the complexity of who is supporting whom, and how. Part of the reason provided is that to appeal to mainly white audiences, a white character must be at the moral core of the story, even if shown in a critical light. The journalist Nicholas Kristof, controversially, described this as the ‘bridge character’ that he deploys in his writing to help connect Americans with, for example, the difficult experiences of people living in Congo.

The more complex reality being eclipsed by this narrative is that despite scornful comments by some white donors that ‘Africans are not helping their own’, one of the biggest flows of private resources to African countries comes in the form of remittances sent by migrants. These outstrip the size of foreign government and charity aid by many multiples. Members of African diasporas, then, are more likely ‘saviour figures’ than white celebrities, or citizens in countries of the Global North. But even in the field of development, whether state-led or through private philanthropy, the centrality of the ‘white saviour’ paints a limited and misleading picture of who is working to help whom and how. Studies point to the dynamism of local charity activities in many places, in parts of Africa and beyond.

While many of these local activities remain under the radar of the institutional development apparatus and that of citizens in the Global North, there is a clearly growing trend in international, small-scale, collaborations in private aid (theconversation.com/citizen-aid) including especially in the United States. These are often joint initiatives between local and foreign founders, who each bring different skills and interests to their projects. Even though local founders are sometimes portrayed as mere ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘coordinators’, this often masks their vital role in these collaborations. This consists not just of the local knowledge and connections that they provide, but the visions for what they would like to achieve for their own communities.

Many of these joint projects draw on transnational networks of supporters, including many based in the Global North. In this context, some strategically foreground a white ‘bridge character’ in their activities. This could be done to negotiate with overseas funders, because ‘the sponsors trust a white person’, as one local project founder put it. Foreigners may also take responsibility for presenting newsletters and financial reports, and place themselves as strategic overseers for particular audiences. While this appears to outwardly confirm the centrality of a ‘white saviour’ for the projects and it operations, it overlooks the fact that these responsibilities can be intentionally placed to appeal to white audiences. Whether this reflects actual leadership and internal decision-making, is a different matter.

In a final twist, paying attention to local activities reveals an often overlooked constituency. These are regionally-based donors, who are not necessarily, or not at all, white. In the Asia-Pacific region for example, citizens from Japan, South Korea or Singapore routinely travel to poorer countries in the region, such as in Indonesia, Laos or Cambodia, to support charity projects there. It further unsettles the axis that privileges ‘white saviours’ over others, downplaying the agency of locals and collaborators even in its critique. It is a sobering reminder that after all, white people are only part of the picture, and not necessarily the most important one.

Anne-Meike Fechter is Reader in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. Her current project, based on research funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is concerned with ‘Citizen Aid’.

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